After teaching for a while at our community college, I noticed that my classes usually include students who are inherently intelligent and earnestly hard-workng, but not as successful in the classroom as they should be. What is the problem here? The October 7th edition of Annie Murphy Paul’s monthly newsletter The Brilliant Report offers an explanation. These students haven’t become experts at learning how to learn. Paul explains it this way:
“To put it in more straightforward terms, anytime a student learns, he or she has to bring in two kinds of prior knowledge: knowledge about the subject at hand (say, mathematics or history) and knowledge about how learning works.”
Too many community college students don’t have that critical understanding of how learning works. If instructors recognize that deficiency, we should be able to help our students become more proficient at learning how to learn, right? But it’s harder than you might think, this business of teaching someone how to learn. The problem, I think, is a dirty little secret: most of us were good at it.
Of course, no one…or at least no one that you’d want to have lunch with…is going to come right out and say, “You know, I was pretty good at this school thing. Still am, as a matter of fact.” It simply isn’t done. But, deep down, we know that we were the kids who figured out early on which circles to blacken with our #2 pencils. We just sort of knew what would be on the test. And we figured out how to stash that information in our brain bins, at least until the exams were over. Now don’t protest that it isn’t so. None of us ended up in our jobs by being lousy at learning.
And that’s what makes it hard for us to help our students. We take it for granted that college students have mastered the tricks that we don’t even remember learning. Don’t they realize that re-reading a chapter five times is not a viable pre-test strategy? No. That re-reading their class notes five times doesn’t guarantee a good grade? No. That making 200 flash cards and draining six highlighters is not the same as learning? No.
Can we help them do better? YES! If we consciously make the effort to teach learning strategies as we teach our discipline-specific material, our value to students doubles. The first step in doing this is the hardest: realizing what we know about learning that our students don’t. Fortunately, Paul offers some suggestions from researcher Helen Askell-Williams, an expert in international student proficiency. Some strategies are intended for students, while others can be implemented by teachers.
First up for students: Make drawings or diagrams. (See? You’ve been doing this forever, haven’t you?) Students may need some encouragement and an example. Today in my A&P class we reviewed the two parts of the pituitary gland. Students learned how the parts differed in origin, in their connection to the supervising hypothalamus, and what hormones are released from which part. I might ask students to look away from their books and notes, then sketch a diagram that includes as much of that information as they can recall. When students see that this helps them navigate the swamp that is our endocrine system, they realize that diagramming is a viable strategy.
First up for teachers: Make the topic of the lesson clear. I don’t think it’s very inviting to announce, “Now we will study growth hormone.” I prefer to lure students to the topic with a bell ringer question: “How tall was the world’s tallest man?” illustrated with a photo of the late Robert Wadlow. I can follow up with a short list of objectives for the next learning session.
In subsequent posts, I’ll take a look at some of the other suggestions offered in The Brilliant Blog, and consider how they might be used in our classes. We’d love to hear your thoughts, too.